In Hope of an Enduring Gift: the Intergenerational Transfer of Cherished Possessions; a Special Case of Gift Giving

ABSTRACT - This research contributes to the gift-exchange literature by examining the phenomena of intergenerational cherished possession transfers. Although cherished possession transfers differ in many important ways from typical gift exchanges, they are a special case of gift giving, consistent with many parameters of the gift-giving framework. Intergenerational transfers have previously been studied from an inheritance perspective, however, the gift exchange literature provides important additional insight (Rosenfeld 1979; Sussman, Cates and Smith 1970). This research focuses on distributions of cherished possessions transferred from older to younger generational family members, and extends our theoretical understanding of end of life gifts transferred by older consumers. In this exploratory study in-depth interviews are conducted with matched sets of both cherished possession donors and recipients. Results suggest that the gift exchange focus provides a relevant theoretical foundation and systematized framework for the invesigation of intergenerational possession transfers. Many differences are noted, demonstrating that intergenerationally transferred end-of-life gifts are substantially different in many ways from more conventional gift exchanges.


Carolyn Folkman Curasi (1999) ,"In Hope of an Enduring Gift: the Intergenerational Transfer of Cherished Possessions; a Special Case of Gift Giving", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 125-132.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 125-132


Carolyn Folkman Curasi, Berry College


This research contributes to the gift-exchange literature by examining the phenomena of intergenerational cherished possession transfers. Although cherished possession transfers differ in many important ways from typical gift exchanges, they are a special case of gift giving, consistent with many parameters of the gift-giving framework. Intergenerational transfers have previously been studied from an inheritance perspective, however, the gift exchange literature provides important additional insight (Rosenfeld 1979; Sussman, Cates and Smith 1970). This research focuses on distributions of cherished possessions transferred from older to younger generational family members, and extends our theoretical understanding of end of life gifts transferred by older consumers. In this exploratory study in-depth interviews are conducted with matched sets of both cherished possession donors and recipients. Results suggest that the gift exchange focus provides a relevant theoretical foundation and systematized framework for the invesigation of intergenerational possession transfers. Many differences are noted, demonstrating that intergenerationally transferred end-of-life gifts are substantially different in many ways from more conventional gift exchanges.


Although there is a substantial literature base relating to the inheritance of financial assets, with only a few exceptions, the inheritance of personal possessions has received very little empirical attention, especially from those within the discipline of marketing (Tobin 1996; Doka 1992; Weiner 1992, 1994; McCracken 1988; Unruh 1983; Sussman, Cates and Smith 1970). Of the few academic papers relating to the topic of intergenerational possession transfers, the phenomenon is typically explored within the context of inheritances and bequests, as if it were a purely economic transfer.

Although an examination of the economic aspects of the transfer predominates, there is substantial evidence suggesting that other factors are also at play. For those bequesting possessions, the process of inheritance is much more than an economic decision. Cherished possessions are often unique items that cannot be easily divided between the number of surviving loved ones. Deciding which family member should receive a singular cherished item can be especially heart wrenching (Tobin 1996; Doka 1992; Unruh 1983; McCracken 1988). Moreover, informants in one study reported that receiving a possession from a deceased loved one provided them with a "psychic income as valuable as real property" (Sussman, Cates and Smith 1970, p. 148).

A great deal of research has been conducted relating to gift giving including: gift-giving during the holiday season (Caplow 1982; Fischer and Arnold 1990), the retail environment and customer perceptions (McGrath 1989; Sherry and McGrath 1989), gender differences (McGrath 1995; Fischer and Arnold 1990; Caplow 1982), self gifts (Mick and DeMoss 1990), dating and behaviors (Belk and Coon 1991), unsuccessful gift-giving (Rucker, Balch, Higham, and Schenter 1992) and returning gifts (Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992; Fischer and Arnold 1990). However, even with the aging of our population, we still know little about the gift-giving behavior of the large and growing subculture of the elderly (Sherry 1983). Especially neglected is the gift-giving behavior of older consumers within their families. This is unfortunate for three reasons. First of all, this is an affluent population segment with strong potential for profitability (Bureau of Statistics, 1995). Grandparents spend a very large percentage of their income on gifts for family members (Fisher 1996). Better understanding the gift-giving behavior of older consumers could aid marketers seeking to satisfy this segment of the population.

Second, strong emotional feelings are associated with intergenerational possession transfers. Previous research indicates decisions related to the disposition of financial assets are typically not problematic. Assets can easily be divided equally between survivors. However, the decision of to whom a singular cherished possession is given is often fraught with tension and anxiety for both gift giver and potential recipient (Tobin 1996; Unruh 1983; McCracken 1988). The resolution of such anxiety certainly merits further study.

Finally, much of the world’s population is aging. During the 20th century the number of people in the United States over the age of sixty-five has tripled. The elderly numbered 3.1 million in 1900. The Bureau of Census (1995) expects this population segment to increase dramatically until the year 2050, when the U.S. will be home to over 80 million individuals 65 years of age and over. The disposition decisions of this large and growing population segment will greatly impact society by its sheer magnitude. In summary, this research strives to contribute to our understanding of the intergenerational transfer of cherished possessions, positioned as a speial case of a gift-giving exchange.

Cherished Possessions

End of life dispositions of cherished possessions, is explored with the understanding that any resource may be selected and given as a gift (Wagner, Ettenson, and Verrier 1990). This research focuses on possessions cherished by the older consumer. For the purpose of this project, a special possession is defined as an object that is described by its owner as "important," "special," "cherished," "favorite," or "priceless" (Holbrook 1994; Richins 1994b; Tobin 1996; Wapner, Demick and Redondo 1990). A cherished possession is one the owner feels a special fondness for, usually based on recollections associated with the object (Tobin 1996). Because the value of a possession often rests on the item’s ability to communicate information about its possessor and from its ability to define and reflect personal identity, this investigation proposes that a possession’s value emerges from its meaning (Bloch and Richins 1983; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Richins 1994a). Importantly, special possessions are approached in this investigation as "polysemic symbolic resources" (Holt 1997, pg. 334), able to convey a wide variety of consumption meanings, uses and interpretations.

Conceptual Framework

In order to set the stage for the investigation that follows, the gift-giving conceptual framework is reviewed briefly, focusing on the three distinct stages of the gift-giving process: gestation, prestation, and reformulation (Wagner, Ettenson, and Verrier 1990; Sherry 1983). This is not an attempt to comprehensively review the gift-giving literature, but rather, to use this framework as a template for enhancing understanding of this phenomenon.

The gestation stage includes all of the thoughts and behaviors leading up to the presentation of the gift, beginning with the stimuli that motivate the giver to present the planned recipient with a gift, and including all of the activities leading up to the actual gift presentation. It is during this stage that the gift-giver conducts a search of the gift shops and other agencies where they could purchase the gift.

Once the retail establishment and the specific gift is selected, the gift giver then invests the present with symbolic meaning. Givers prepare the gift and themselves through impression management, thought to strongly impact the intentions and meanings interpreted by recipients (Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992; Wagner, Ettenson, and Verrier 1990; Sherry 1983).

The act of transferring one’s cherished possessions may be motivated by altruistic or agonistic motivations (Sherry 1983; Belk 1988). Agonistic motives are concerned with some type of strategic personal gain, whereas altruistic motives are inspired purely by the desire to give pleasure to a loved one. The gift-giver may, thus, act strategically in the gift exchange, hoping for something in return for the gift. Such strategic action is not limited to the giver as the potential recipient may also drop hints of preferred gifts (Sherry 1983).

During the prestation stage the gift is exchanged. It is the period of time when both the gift giver and recipient are completely focused on the exchange process, including the time, place, the mode of transaction and the ritual or ceremony of the exchange (Sherry 1983). The mode of presentation is thought to be as important as the gift being exchanged. This is a very distinct stage of the gift exchange framework.

Reformulation is the last stage in the gift-giving process when both parties are focused on evaluating the gift exchange. This evaluation greatly impacts the relationship and future gift exchanges between these individuals. The norm of reciprocity that is part of gift-giving behavior is thought to be an important foundation for systems of social relationships in all societies (Cheal 1996; Mauss 1990, 1954).


This inquiry is based on data collected between the fall of 1997 and the summer of 1998. Dyadic in-depth interviews were conducted with givers and recipients because it is necessary to understand the perspectives of both parties to the exchange in order to fully understand the dynamics of a partnership (Sherry 1983). Thus, two different generational family members-parent and adult child-serve as informants in separate interviews of matched sets-both the gift-giver and the gift recipient for a particular cherished possession transfer. The semi-structured interviews lasted from sixty minutes to three hours and were conducted with twenty-eight informants, from ten family groups, forming nineteen gift exchange dyads.

An interview guide was prepared, one for the parental informants and one for the adult child informants, to develop an understanding of the gift exchange process from the perspective of each dyad participant. Questions sought information about reciprocity, impression management, symbolic investment, motivations for the exchange, feelings, beliefs, and experiences related to these transferred items and the exchange itself including the behaviors enacted and the feelings elicited during the three stages of the exchange (Sherry 1983). The parent was interviewed first to learn what possessions they cherished and their feelings, memories and experiences related to those items. The adult child was then interviewed to learn their feelings, memories, and experiences related to those possessions already mentioned by their parent and of the possessions they defined as their most cherished.

The interviews were audio taped, transcribed and serve as the raw data for interpretation. Transcribed interviews were examined for common themes and patterns. As a conceptual framework began to emerge from the data, newly transcribed interviews were further investigated for repeated documentation. As an iterative investigation, additional themes and tensions emerged and were scrutinized for repeated documentation.

An outline of the themes was prepared and a computer file created for each, consistent with the bracketing discussed by Thompson, Locander, and Pollio (1989). The transcripts were then re-read and coded. A qualitative research software package was used to organize illustrations of specific themes. Importantly, while the data files were helpful in organizing the data according to specific themes, many important elements of the process could only be discerned through repeated readings of each interview in its entirety, in context to its dyad partner, and within each family group.


The Gestation Phase: Searching for a Recipient

In conventional gift exchanges the gift exchange process is started with the gestation stage when the gift giver conducts a search of all of the gift shops and other agencies from where they can purchase a gift. With intergenerational cherished possession transfers the situation is very different. In this case, the older family member conducts a search of possible recipients for the cherished item they have already decided to transfer. Instead of deciding what to purchase as a gift, the gift giver decides to whom he or she should give their cherished possession. These older consumers already know what they want to give; instead, they have not decided to whom they want to give it. Instead of conducting a search of potential shops and agencies from which to purchase a gift, the older generational member conducts an internal or a mental search of possible recipients for the future ownership of their cheished possessions.

In addition to deciding to whom the item should be given, the older consumer also must decide how to transfer the item and just when the transfer should take place. The following vignette also demonstrates another important difference between the more conventional gift-giving framework and that of intergenerational transfers. These gifts are used items, instead of presents purchased specifically for that individual at that point in time. However, even though they are "used items" it is interesting to note how cherished these items are often, to both the donor and to the recipient.

This respondent illustrates the mental search for a recipient of a gun that has been in the family for approximately five generations. Although it is her husband’s decision, the two have discussed the gun’s disposition many times. Ellie, age 78, is married and has one adult daughter, three adult sons, one son-in-law, and two grandsons. She and her husband have struggled with the decision of to whom this cherished possession should be given. Ultimately, their determination was narrowed to deciding which one of their sons, their one son-in-law, or their one grandson should receive the musket:

...I think, our oldest will get it. Everybody would like to have it just for something to look at. But, he was the only one who was in the service, and he was in Viet Nam. And I feel that it’s only fair. He knows there’s some meaning to it. The other three weren’t [in Viet Nam]. It’s meaningful for someone who understands, someone who has been in the service. So, he will get this. He knows that. I suppose we could give it to our son-in-law. But what would he do with it? But, any how, we told our son that any time he was here [he could take it]. (W.F., 78)

Who Will Best Understand the Meanings?

The above quote illustrates that during this phase of the exchange, the donor is concerned with attempting to match his or her feelings for the possession with a positive affective and evaluative response from the recipient (Wolfinbarger and Giley 1996). This is especially important when the gift given is one of the givers’ most cherished possessions and is heavily invested with meaning. The gift-givers commonly communicate their hope that the recipient of their cherished possession will cherish that item as they have. This decision from the previous informant was based on a determination of who would best understand the meanings associated with this cherished gun. The couple decide to give it to their son, who was in the service and fought in Viet Nam, because, of all of their children, they believe he will best understand its meanings. Ellie, illustrates this point clearly:

I think of it as giving it to someone who would appreciate it. As I think they [her children] do. They know it has been in the family. The one son was born in Guam, and that was forty-eight years ago. If I give him anything, I give him some items like vases, and we have several of them. I think he can say, that, you know, my mother and father got these vases the year I was born. I think that’s meaningful for them. And that’s something we have been trying to do all along. (W.F., 78)

This woman is hoping to transfer her possessions that would also be meaningful to her children. She trusts that because these items have been in the family since this son was born, they will have a special symbolic meaning encoded in them that her son can understand and appreciate.

Concern and Anxiety Over The Uncertainty

Dorothy, is a 75 years old, married informant, with two grown sons, Roby, age 38 and Bill, age 36. Roby is married with two small boys of his own. Dorothy has kept many of her boy’ artwork and books, along with her oldest son’s chess board that is still set up in their living room. These items are simply too precious for her to discard. She has kept these things for many years with the specific idea that at some point in the future these items will be given back to her grown children, perhaps when they have their own children. Dorothy already knows what she will be giving and to whom she will give it. Her decision is simply to decide when and how to make the transfer as meaningful as possible. She has already given her older son some of his things she has kept. Notice her anxiety in this vignette, over whether her daughter-in-law will understand and appreciate the meanings encoded into these items. She is concerned that the meanings might not sufficiently transfer to ensure that her daughter-in-law will be motivated to preserve them. This anxiety is voiced at other times in the interview, providing strong evidence of her concern about whether her daughter-in-law would preserve and pass on these items that Dorothy so cherishes:

I [have] the artwork of my two boys and their books that they read when they were growing up. I kept all that. ...We have still have Roby’s chess board here, you see. He’s our oldest and both of them played chess. They are things we had purchased for them as they were growing up. Now, see that’s one thing my daughter-in-law, said she was saving. She said, "My Mother never had time to keep our artwork and our things." So, she really appreciated the books and I think Roby did too because he was surprised that I’d kept all of it. ...Of course, moving like we did, we let a lot of things go. But, I did save their train and that is a collectible now. Their Lionel train. I hope they kept it [laugh]. I hope that Jeannie and Roby find itCI know Roby appreciated it. (W.F., 75)

Parents repeatedly discuss maintaining a few of their child’s things with the intention that they will give them back to their child at a much later time. Their hope is that these items will be appreciated and held dear by the younger family members as they attain a sufficient understanding of their meaning.

Many older family members seem to want more feedback from their younger family members confirming both the possible recipient’s positive feelings for these intergenerationally transferred items along with evidence of an understanding of the meanings these possessions hold. The older family members commonly want some kind of assurance, as Dorothy does, that these items will stay within the family lineage and that the meanings will be transferred along with the items to future family members. Note that it appears Dorothy would like feedback from her son and daughter-in-law assuring her that these items are meaningful to them and that they plan to preserve them.

Extremely Long Gestation Periods

Often, the stimulus or motivation for gift giving happens decades before the transfer decision. Dorothy’s interview illustrates this point, as do others. Alfred, a 62-year-old engineer concurred:

I finally had a son, and now he has a son. That clock has to go through that family, because it has been in the family for about a hundred and fifty years. (WM, 62, Alfred)

With the recent birth of a grandson, this informant is already planning the passage of this grandfather clock through to this newest family member, illustrating again, the much longer gestation period typical in intergenerational gift transfers. The stimulus for giving a gift often occurs decades before the gift is actually given. Indeed, cherished possession transfers are often characterized by an extremely long gestation period as compared to conventional gift-giving exchanges.

The Sacred Status of Possessions of the Deceased

In situations where the relationship with the previous owner was especially dear to the informant, recipients commonly raise the inalienable possession to an almost sacred status after the death of the loved one. In a bittersweet way, items that once belonged to a deceased loved one help to fill a void left in the recipient’s life with the passing of that older generational member (Doka 1992; Gentry, Baker, and Kraft 1995). There were many examples of this in the data. Marcia, a middle age woman, explains how close she felt to her grandmother, and discusses how important this grandmother was to her when she was growing up: grandmother on my father’s side, we were soul mates. She was literally the most important person in my life. She always was. My Grandfather on my Mother’s side, I would say, is the second most important person in my life, that taught me about unconditional love. And, I think my Grandmother on my Father’s side taught me unconditional love and that’s what they gave to me. And, I’m very lucky that I had those relationships, very lucky. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without my Grandmother during certain times of my life. She was always there supporting me and giving me strength, and giving me guidance and confidence. ...But, the table was so symbolic of her and the fact that she chose me to have it was really special. But, we were also very close and everybody knows it. I was the oldest grandchild and everybody really knew that we were soul mates. we had this really special relationship. She was close to all her grandchildren and her sons but I think everybody kind of knew that ...I was her favorite. (W.F., 43)

This woman clearly felt extremely close to her grandmother. As she explains, her grandmother left her a marble top table that she treasures because it embodies the spirit of her grandmother, clearly evidenced by how she speaks about it when asked about her most cherished possession:

I would say that my most cherished is the table that my grandmother gave me, that my father’s mother, gave me, because it was, she was a music teacher and that style is just so her. And, she always had it in a strategic place in her house and had always said for years that she wanted me to have it. And, it just signifies her so much! ...It was so much a part of her. You know, it just symbolizes her. I’m almost a little uneasy when the other members of my family come over here, you know, that side of the family because it’s in a strategic place in my house. And I know that it makes them think of her. ...But I think that, I’m wondering if they, you know, when they see the table if they miss her and if it makes them sad. You know, I’ve thought about that. (W.F., 43)

This table has acquired an almost sacred status. In fact, the guestroom in her home could be thought of as a memorial to her deceased grandmother. Consistent with the gift-giving literature, this woman’s grandmother has encoded this table with meaning and a strong reflection of herself (Schwartz 1967).

Another informant, age 44, retrieved her stepfather’s straw hat from his things shortly after his death. She had a very close relationship with her stepfather’s and missed him desperately when he passed away. He had repeatedly worn the hat when working in the yard, and in his repeated and constant use of it, and through their warm, loving relationship, he invested it with meaning for her. She mentioned this straw hat as being one of her most cherished possessions. Both of these women have raised an item that was used by a deceased love one to an almost sacred status. Indeed the items have been emotionally consecrated through the death of their previous owners.

Motivations in Transfers

The traditional gift-giver and gift recipient may act strategically at times in gift exchange situations (Sherry 1983). This is also the case with intergenerational possession transfers. Younger family members often provide hints to older family members by subtly letting them know they are interested in owning one of the elder’s cherished possessions. Sometimes, family members make unequivocal statements to the older family members telling them what personal items of theirs they would like to have. These hints and outright requests may very well be the stimulus that motivates the older generational family member to transfer that cherished possession. Simply knowing that a possession is special to a younger family member may be all the stimulus that is needed to initiate the gift giving, reflecting altruistic motives.

Margie, age 75, says in her interview that she was given one of her family’s most cherished possessions because she made it known to her mother that she liked it very much. Here is her explanation of how she came to receive the silver basket that has been in their family since the turn of the century:

Well, the silver basket is especially mine. I always wanted it as a child. I always paid special attention to it. It’s kind of a May basket, with a silver handle. (She motions with her hands showing me the approximate size and shape of the basket.) ...I always told her (told her mother she liked the basket). It was always mine, yeah. (W.F., 75)

She said also, that her daughter Beth, age 42, made it clear to her that she loved this family possession. It was Beth’s strong desire to have the silver basket that confirmed the possession transfer. Beth related the same idea when I was interviewing her and asked why she thought she was given the silver basket:

I really think that it’s, you know, one, she knows how much I care about things like that. That I truly appreciate them and understand their value and their meaning to her. And, ultimately, they’ll stay within the family. (W.F., 42)

Beth clearly communicates that her mother’s cherished possessions are very meaningful to her, too. Ellie ( introduced earlier) also provides an example of exchanges that are initiated by her children just letting her know that they would appreciate having something of hers, that it would be meaningful to them:

I think of giving it to someone who would appreciate it. And I think they do. ...So, I am doing that. Every time the children want something or say they like something. But they want you to hold it for them. I say if you don’t take it now, you’ll regret it later. Don’t blame me. You had the opportunity. So, that’s what we are doing. If someone wants something, or needs something, I tell them to go ahead and take it. (W.F., 78)

Clearly, Ellie wants to be sure the recipient of her cherished possessions appreciates them. She would like to know that they want them and will use them. Like Margie and Ellie, Donna, age 76, also says that she finds herself giving her children her possessions, if they say they’d like to have them. She says that she learned that from her mother-in-law, and has now found herself acting out the same behavior:

I love to give things to my children, if they like something. My mother-in-law used to be that way toward me. If I went into her home and admired something, she’d want to give it to me. And I have found myself doing the same thing. (W.F., 76)

Many older generational family members reflect altruistic motivations, but also seem to have some agonistic motives, wanting to ensure that their cherished possessions will be taken care of in the future.

Symbolic Investment

Sherry (1983) suggests that during the gestation stage, impression management behaviors of the gift-giver greatly impact the way the gift is appreciated by the recipient (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992; Sherry 1983; Wagner, Ettenson, and Verrier 1990). Once again, some important differences are found as compared to traditional gift-giving exchanges. These cherished possession transfers are distinct from other gifts in that they are used items. Hence, they don’t need to be stripped of commodification such as the removal of price tags. Additionally, they are rarely personalized through means such as gift-wrapping. Interestingly, in this investigation, only transferred items of jewelry were sometimes gift-wrapped.

The original owners of these items and subsequent caretakers invest them with meaning during the long gestation period characteristic of these belongings. Moreover, the way the symbolic meaning is invested in cherished objects is very different in intergenerational gift exchanges as compared to more traditional gift exchanges. With intergenerational transfers of cherished possessions, the investment of symbolic meaning has taken place throughout the ownership of that object. It can occur by the close association of the older loved one and their cherished possession along with their observable behaviors of story telling, use and/or maintenance over this long gestation period. In contrast, traditional gifts gain value through the search and selection process. Traditional gift-givers add meaning investing their time and energy in the search process. These cherished possessions have meaning simply because they are seen to embody the lives of the previous owners.

The Prestation Phase

The prestation stage, when the gift is actually exchanged, is that period of time when both the giver and the receiver of the gift are completely focused on the exchange process, including the time, place, the mode of transmission and the ritual or the ceremony of the exchange (Sherry 1983). This appears to be another important difference between intergenerational possession transfers and more traditional gift exchanges. In more standard gift exchanges, there is a definite time and place when the item is exchanged from the gift-giver to the gift recipient. However, in intergenerational gift transfers, the specific ownership of the possessions is much less distinct. Often more than one family member perceives the cherished item to be #theirs’.

Porous Boundaries of Transfer.

With intergenerationally transferred possessions it is often difficult to determine who actually has ownership of the item once owned by a more distant relative. Older consumers speak of transferring the special possession to a child or grandchild. Once transferred, however, many older family members still speak of the possession as if they maintained ownership. Even before being transferred, many younger family members who know they will someday receive a particular item, already think of it as #theirs.’ Older consumers don’t think of these dispositions as getting rid of that possession. It is an interesting phenomenon. These inalienable items have very complex and porous boundaries of transfer. In fact, sometimes the only ownership discernable is ownership by the family or by the lineage.

One informant, when asked if there were some items she knew she would inherit, walked through her parent’s home and pointed out possessions in their home that were #hers’:

Many of the items that have been given to me, they are still here in this house [her parent’s home]. It is well known that they are mine. And that someday, when I get my own house again, that I will take them. (W.F., 35)

Later in the interview she says:

...the shaving cabinet in the bathroom upstairs. That was also sculpted. That’s mine, too. Some things are still in this house, but they are mine. (She giggles.) Do you want me to start pointing? (She laughs) Well, that shaving cabinet up there, that’s mine. Those two paintings over there. You see those over there on the wall? Those are my aunt Isabelle’s paintings. She is married to my uncle, but anyway, she painted those. And those are generally known that at some point in time those will be mine. (W.F., 35)

Even in this short explanation, the informant traverses between saying that these items are hers, and that these items will someday be hers, illustrating the very complex and porous boundary of ownership of intergenerationally transferred possessions. Older informants commonly talk about "their" cherished possession, only to reveal later in the interview that the possession has already been transferred to a younger family member.

Informant: is already in storage. I’ve already given that to my daughter.

Interviewer:  You’ve given it to your daughter? But you said you didn’t anticipate getting rid of any of your most cherished possessions?

Informant:  Oh, I thought you meant, sell them. Oh, by getting rid of them, of, I see. See, you said, "Get rid of them." I thought you meant, sell them.

Interviewer:  So when you think of giving it to your daughter, you don’t think of that as getting rid of it?

Informant:  No. Because we are keeping it within the family. (W.F., 56)

Again, determining when these possessions actually change hands and change ownership can be rather difficult. To this woman, even though she has already given it to her daughter, she still thinks of it as one of her most cherished possessions. In another example, Margie refers to the silver basket as hers, even though two years earlier she physically gave it to her daughter, who lives in a different state. Clearly, the ownership of these intergenerationally transferred possessions resides in the family or in the lineage, more than with individuals. The physical transfer of the item is not seen as a divesting, but rather as another stage in imbuing the item with family history or meaning.

The Reformulation Stage

The recipient’s behavior during the gift exchange process impacts future intentions of gift giving to that recipient in conventional gift-giving situations and can also strongly influence future transfers from the older family member when transferring his or her most cherished possessions. As in more traditional gift exchanges, the behavior and reaction of the recipient in intergenerational transfers is closely scrutinized. Impression management may be especially important in intergenerational transfers of cherished possessions because these possessions are so strongly invested with meaning for the older consumer.

The outcome of the traditional gift-giving exchange framework is depicted as the reversal of the role of giver to the role of ecipient in a following exchange. However, Sherry (1983) calls end-of-life gifts non-recurring, meaning that the cycle of reciprocity found in other types of gift-giving exchanges may be broken. Indeed, the reciprocation found in traditional gift exchanges is rarely a component of end-of-life gift-giving. The end-of-life cherished possession gift may be given unconditionally without expectations of gifts given in return.

That is not to say that such gifts are free of expectations, however. Reciprocity instead takes other forms. Certain behaviors relating to caretaking, transfer and future storytelling may be expected instead of reciprocating through future tangible gifts to the donor. This includes the anticipation that family members will not sell these cherished items. Several older generational family members provided evidence of their strong concern over their cherished possessions being stolen or sold after they had given it to the younger family member. When asked how they would feel if their children or grandchildren were to sell their transferred cherished possessions, strong disapproval was voiced, as indicated by the following informant:

That I wouldn’t like. That’s something that I am concerned about. I go to estate sales all the time. It is so sad (stresses the word sad). There are these beautiful items that are being sold. They are practically giving them away. And people look at them, and these are people that cherished things, like we did in the past. And then you look, and think, look what is happening to them. Obviously, their children didn’t want them. And people think nothing of it, and they try to bring the price down. And I think of these people, and of how they must have felt. They had all of this, and it meant so much to them. (W.F., 78)

Ellie, age 78, (introduced earlier) makes it clear that she hopes or expects her children to keep her cherished possessions. She feels very badly for those whose children do sell their parents’ belongings. Ellie indicates she has given serious thought to this possibility and feels the sale of her cherished possessions would be tragic. When interviewed, her daughter strongly communicated that she also would cherish the items she expected to receive from her mother. She has no intentions of selling any of these things. The following respondent, Harold, age 82, also voices the same strong conviction for not wanting his children to sell his cherished possessions, although, speaking for he and his wife, he states this more succinctly:

We’d come out of our graves. (W.M., 82)

These are certainly much stronger emotions than are communicated with more traditional gift-giving exchanges (Sherry, McGrath, and Levy 1992). Gift recipients commonly return new presents that don’t fit or that were otherwise inappropriate. Although in more traditional gift-giving exchanges there is concern over the recipient’s satisfaction with the gift, there is not evidence of this strength of concern by the gift-givers (Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992).

Other older family informants also discussed their hope that these items would remain in their families. Many informants discuss their desire to have the cherished possession and the meanings bundled with it transferred again, within the family, at the end of the younger family member’s life cycle. Margie, introduced earlier, explains why she thinks the silver basket, and two silver dishes and the red vase with the silver scroll should stay in the family:

Oh, you look back and see how long I’ve had them. [How long] my mother and dad had them. And it just always seemed like they were, they belonged together. They were related. ...I’d like to keep it in the family. I’d like to either give it to Beth’s kids or Martin’s. ...Within the family. (W.F., 75)

The younger members of these dyads have been socialized to understand this also. They continually voice their feelings of responsibility to maintain the family’s cherished possessions within the lineage. Beth, Margie’s daughter, who was introduced earlier, reflected on this idea when asked why she thought her mother chose to give her the silver basket. She said she thought her mother gave it to her, because her mother knew that, "ultimately, they’ll stay within the family".

Margie’s son Fred is 46 years old, has been married twenty-five years to his wife Kathy. They have no children, so it was interesting to learn what he planned to do with these possessions, when feels he gets older. When asked what he will do with the red sofa he inherited from his grandmother, he replied:

I would probably pass it along to somebody else in the family. I don’t know [who]. It would depend on which sibling is making me happiest at the moment. [Laughs] Or their children. Probably their children. (WM, 46)

Beth and Fred clearly understand their mother’s desire to keep these items within the confines of their lineage. It could be thought of as a kind of reciprocity for being given these cherished items.

Many informants also talk about how pleased they were to be chosen from their siblings to receive their parent’s cherished possessions. When asked if she cherished the silver basket that her mother gave her, Beth enthusiastically said she did:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, they are pieces always used when I was a child.

Absolutely. They were were well aware of them. The basket is something that...I mean it’s just gorgeous, you’ll have to see it. It’s absolutely beautiful. My brother Martin would love to have it. I mean, you know, it’s just something that we’ve always really loved. So, she entrusted it to me. It’s real special. (W.F., 42)

This passage also alludes to some sibling rivalry that is associated with the transfer of a parent’s cherished possessions. Overwhelmingly, informants felt fortunate to be the family member selected to receive a parent’s cherished possession. Understanding the role that reciprocity plays in many societies, it is natural for recipients to feel responsible to try to repay the debt in some way (Mauss 1990, 1950; Sahlins 1972).

Informants suggest that just knowing one of their parents cherished an object, leaves them feeling obligated to maintain the item in their family. One example of this is related to a painting that is among Donna’ most cherished possessions. Her two daughters and one son all interviewed individually, said they feel it is important to keep this item if it is so cherished by their mother. Because the meanings did not transfer with this item, however, it is not meaningful to her children. They all said they hope one of their siblings or nieces or nephews will want it. So, although they think it’s important to maintain it within the family, they don’t really want to personally have that responsibility.

Possessions that had been in the family from relatives more distant than the informant’s parents also generated a strong sense of obligation to pass that item on to future generations of family members. An example of this is Shelly’s sailor’s thimble. This item is valued because it has been in the family so long. It is commonly understood that Shelly’s only daughter, Kelly will receive this item. Kelly communicated in the interview that she fully intended to pass it on to the children she has not yet had. Thus, there is again a strong sense of preserving these cherished items for future family members.

Thus, the older family meber may closely evaluate the behavior and actions of the younger family member and attempt to decide if that person will treat the cherished possession as the giver would like. The older consumer may look for cues that provide evidence that the planned recipient will cherish the possession he or she is planning to transfer, looking for evidence of the planned recipient’s dedication to understanding and communicating the stories and meaning bundles attached to the cherished items (McCracken 1988). They may look for assurances that the item, once transferred, will not be ignored or sold, but instead will be appreciated. They may look for assurances that the meanings will also be understood, and later transferred to a younger family member.

This suggests then that there may be an implied type of reciprocity since often the older family members may hope and assume that the possession’s new owner will care for, maintain, and transfer it in the future along with the meanings, values and stories bundled with it. This idea is consistent with Unruh (1983) who argues that the older consumer seeks to symbolically encode cues in their possession that will help their survivors remember them as they wish to be remembered. Several informants illustrate this point.

In her interview, Margie simply said that she doesn’t want to be remembered as being a grouch. She has given many of her most cherished possessions to her children, doing this more frequently in recent years. She simply wants her family members to remember her positively through the gifts she has passed on to them. However, some culturally encoded meanings can also be extracted from these gifts, such as the fact that she was a good and loving mother, wife, and grandmother. Through this symbolic encoding, older individuals may hope to attain a type of symbolic immortality similar to the desire of many wealthy to attain a type of secular immortality through their philanthropic gifts to their communities and country (Hirschman 1990).


Consistent with the initial goal, this research sought to examine the gift-giving exchange literature and to evaluate its ability to increase the scientific understanding of this phenomena through a systematized structure capable of both explaining and predicting phenomena (Hunt 1983). Although differing in many important ways, end of life dispositions of cherished possessions transferred to younger generational family members provide evidence of being a special case of gift-giving exchange behavior, similar to, but distinct from, traditional concepts of gift exchange.

These cherished possession transfers are unique from other gifts because they are used items, and commonly valued more than purchased gifts. These items are symbolically invested with meaning by the gift-giver, often over a very long period of time, so that the symbolic investment of traditional gifts has already taken place, and additional meaning added immediately prior to the gift exchanged is often not necessary. Especially after an older loved one has passed away, cherished possession recipients often discuss their feeling that these items hold the very essence of their previous owner. The new owners of the cherished possessions of deceased often raise the transferred item to an almost sacred status.

Although others have argued that end-of-life cherished possession transfers are nonrecurring, the evidence here suggests that if successfully executed, such transfers result in even greater reciprocity than traditional gifts, even though such reciprocity takes a different form.

Unruh (1983) make a provocative suggestion that older people seek to leave cues encoded in their possession for their younger loved ones to decode. He argues that older consumers seek through this to attain a type of symbolic immortality. By giving the deceased a type of symbolic immortality these are truly gifts that are reciprocated. This ivestigation supports that contention. However, this research stream could benefit by additional research on the contexts and situations where the cherished possession meanings are the most successfully transferred. Under what circumstances are these stories and meanings bundled with the cherished possession most effectively transferred to a younger generational member?

Intuitively, it would seem that values, social status and gender roles are also transferred through these intergenerational transfers. Data from this investigation provides some evidence to support this contention. Theory related to increasing our understanding of the role of possessions in transmitting cultural capital could be benefited by a greater understanding of these possession related phenomena.


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Carolyn Folkman Curasi, Berry College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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